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Monday, July 13, 2009

"White is for Witching" by Helen Oyeyemi (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Helen Oyeyemi at Wikipedia
Order "White is for Witching" HERE(US) and HERE(UK and Overseas)

INTRODUCTION: Since we started doing monthly spotlights with each of FBC's contributors sharing the books they are looking forward to, I started checking out all the selections that do not come from me. From the June list I browsed several such when they were released in bookstores,
but of all only "White is for Witching" entranced me from the first page so I bought it that day and read it twice soon after. It is a magical novel that packs so much in its 240 pages so even after two reads I am not sure I got all its nuances.

OVERVIEW: On 29 Barton Road in Dover (UK) stands the Silver family house passed from Anna Good who married wealthy Andrew Silver in 1939, while later he went to war as a pilot and died in action, leaving Anna with her infant daughter Jennifer and the house barely surviving the savage bombardments of the war.

Jennifer's daughter Lily Silver marries Parisian chef and cookbook writer Luc Dufresne and he convinces her to transform her ancestral home into a Bed and Breakfast. Their twin children, Miranda and Eliot born in the early 1980's keep their maternal surname Silver due to the color of their eyes and Miranda inherits the dual family "curses" - she has PICA, an eating disorder that plagued her three matrilineal relatives above and she "belongs" to the house which is a haunted one that is way too fond of its women.

Lily is a "war" photographer and she dies tragically in Haiti where she was filming elections and their violence. The twins were 16 1/2 at the time and when Miri starts feeling responsible for her mother's death due to some silly joke from Eliot, she has a breakdown and gets interned into a clinic, though later she recovers enough to be admitted to Cambridge. There she meets and befriends adopted Nigerian born girl Ore Lind, while Eliot goes on an a photo/movie internship in South Africa.

The book starts with a prologue that is actually an epilogue and makes full sense only after finishing the novel and is divided into two main parts. The narration is first person from Eliot, Ore and 29 Barton Rd (the house !) and third person from Miranda's POV. The POV switches from paragraph to paragraph though it is usually clear who is talking in first person and there are more literary devices employed such as words that mark the end of a phrase and the beginning of the next phrase simultaneously so the arrangement in page of the novel has some importance.

From the first page:


Miranda Silver is in Dover....


Miri is gone.

29 barton road:
Miranda is at home

this book just hooked me with its superb style and it went like this to the end, though as mentioned above the true ending is contained in the paragraphs starting above, so that will make much more sense after you finish the novel.

I also loved the explanation of the title:

"White is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do."

and if these two very short excerpts will not entrance you, nothing will.

Even though short as pages go, the novel packs so much that you will need at least one re-read but it's worth it in spades. Be prepared to be enchanted and put aside some time to read this wonderful novel since it truly benefits from a continuous reading the first time around. Or at least read the whole first part at a time and then the whole second part at a time.

Of the three main characters, Miranda is suitably mysterious and moody, but she will grow on you, while Eliot seems a very reasonable 17-18 year old until we get to Ore's narration which casts doubts on quite a lot of what came before.

As the voice of the author to some extent and the one truly grounded character - which tells you something considering her background in the novel - Ore stands out as "normal" in the motley crew of unusual characters from the book and she is very likable and a girl you can easily imagine meeting at a college or in another social setting.

The interactions between her and Miranda starting with their chance meeting at the Cambridge admission interview are just superb, while Eliot's interactions with Miri are "twin-like", a combination of rivalry and affection.

There is a lot of subtle and not so subtle social commentary too - Ore's extended adopted family makes a wonderful target for satire, "the salt of the English people, National Front leaflets and all" and the black adopted girl, while the characters are quite diverse with the Kossovar refugee Tijana, the wonderful housekeeper Sade who is also black, the Azeri helpers, the French grandparents...

And of course there is the house itself, 29 Barton Road, whose lines in the novel are grotesque, chilling and great at the same time.

Highly, highly recommended, do not miss this superb gem!!



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